He Was Legend: Richard Matheson, 1926-2013

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It’s difficult to estimate the enormous impact that Richard Matheson’s writing has had on American pop culture. William Shatner helplessly watching through a sealed window as a woolly gremlin gleefully tears apart the engine of a jet airliner; the frantic face of Dennis Weaver as he attempts to escape the murderous rage of an unseen truck driver on a lonely mountain road; the lone surviving member of humanity facing off against legions of the undead; a maniacal wooden Zuni fetish doll pursuing Karen Black across the floor of her high-rise apartment — all of these have become iconic images shared by generations of horror and fantasy fans. And all had their genesis in the mind of one man.

Beginning his career in 1950, with short stories for science fiction and fantasy magazines, Richard Matheson quickly developed a lean, pared-down prose style that drew more from hard-boiled crime fiction than the scribes of intergalactic space operas. He freely mixed elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror in tales of ordinary people who suddenly found themselves thrown into fantastic situations. While Matheson was certainly not the first to bring horror out of gothic castles and transplant it into the suburbs and office buildings of the 20th century, he quickly became one of the leading lights of a group of Southern California fantasists that included Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and others. All of whom drew on the fears, paranoia and jitters of middle-class America in the Atomic Age.

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The 1957 film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, an adaptation of his novel from the previous year, provided his entry into Hollywood. Over the next 30 years Matheson accumulated an amazing film and TV résumé with scripts for House of Usher (1960), Master of the World (1961), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Burn Witch Burn (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), The Devil Rides Out (1968), The Legend of Hell House (1973), Somewhere in Time (1980), and many more, including such small-screen TV movie terrors as Duel (1971) and Trilogy of Terror (1975). Matheson also authored classic episodes of Have Gun Will Travel, Thriller, Star Trek, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and an amazing 14 teleplays for The Twilight Zone including many of the best-known and beloved episodes — “A World of His Own,” “The Invaders,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and more.

In the 1990s and into the new century, Matheson returned to writing prose with a series of noir-tinged Westerns and several suspense novels. His older stories and novels continued to be adapted into films including What Dreams May Come (1998), Stir of Echoes (1999) The Box (2009) and Real Steel (2011).

But many of the creations that sprang from Matheson’s typewriter found a life larger than their initial appearances. In 1967, a director of industrial training films from Pittsburgh named George Romero shot his first feature film, Night of the Living Dead. Much of the inspiration for his vision of a world populated by flesh-eating zombies came directly from the 1954 Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend about the last living human in world populated by plague-induced vampires. Even though Matheson’s novel had already been filmed (in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth), and would be remade twice (The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007)). Romero’s variation on Matheson’s idea eventually begat the flood of shambling dead now deluging American pop culture.

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In 1972, Matheson took an unpublished novel by writer Jeff Rice called The Kolchak Papers and adapted it into a made-for-TV movie called The Night Stalker that freely mixed humor, suspense and classic horror tropes in the modern world of 1970s Las Vegas. Although “supernatural detective” stories had been a staple of horror fiction for years, Matheson’s updating of the formula proved to be an enormous hit, making The Night Stalker one of the most successful TV movies of all time and eventually inspiring a legion of TV investigators of the supernatural from The X-Files to Fringe, and from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Supernatural.

These are just two examples of the way Matheson’s stories and ideas gained a life of their own over the years. When one considers his influence on writers like Stephen King and Anne Rice, both of whom have often cited him as a primary inspiration, the threads of Matheson’s imagination begin to appear throughout the tapestry of modern fantasy and horror.

In 1992, Richard Matheson was in Nashville, a guest of the second annual World Horror Convention. As head of programming for the convention, one of my duties was to take him and his wife out to lunch. We ended up walking down Church Street to Second Avenue, and along the way Matheson was a bundle of questions. I found myself regaling him with stories about the history of Nashville’s Capitol Hill, Printer’s Alley, and the Battle of Nashville. I could hardly believe that the master storyteller wanted me, a punk-kid aspiring writer, to be the one telling stories.

Over lunch, I was finally able to hand the storytelling reins back to Matheson, and he talked about the often surreal stupidity of working with Hollywood, his personal beliefs in the supernatural, his wife’s career as a professional therapist, his children and their careers, and how all of his interests and experiences had worked their way into his writing. As we walked back to the hotel I couldn’t help but reflect on the discovery I had made that day — that the master chronicler of ordinary people confronting the astounding was himself a most ordinary and humble man. And that one of his greatest gifts was his willingness to hear the stories of others.

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